Reflections on "The Invention of Lying"
Welcome to my page of thoughts on "The Invention of Lying" written and directed by Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson.
A video presentation of this material is available here.
The first thing to say about "The Invention of Lying" is that its major strength is also its major weakness. This is clearly an allegorical tale with no real attempt at realism. The pretence is established from the opening words of the voiceover (itself breaking the "theatrical wall") in which we are invited to join a world in which people speak only the truth - extended beyond fact to include expressions of opinion and personal thoughts.
This device allows for an examination of the extent to which we "lie" in our society - whether deliberately, by omission or to spare others' feelings. Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson emphasise this in the course of their film through a series of encounters in which everyone shares their feelings and thoughts quite openly, to the point of being brutally honest and embarrassingly hurtful, thus revealing the apparent need for and importance of lying in society.
Mark (Gervais) discovers the advantage of saying a falsehood more or less by accident, taking advantage of the assumption of truth to gain the money (from a bank) required to pay his rent. He goes on to use the same ruse to help a homeless person, and then makes a fortune for himself at a casino using the same mechanism.
He goes on to help some elderly and ill people by whispering falsehoods in their ears, and telling his dying mother she can look forward to an eternity of happiness in the afterlife, thus offering hope and ridding her of fear. Overheard by others, he is quickly revered as a bringer of hope, colour and anticipation as opposed to the dullness and limitations of truth.
This transforms fairly quickly into an attack on religion, or rather the perceived gullibility of those willing to accept Mark's pronouncements as "gospel". Announcing a set of edicts from "tablets" made of Pizza Hut boxes (because they gave a greater sense of occasion), these edicts are immediately questioned and doubted, falling at the first hurdle of common sense, yet are accepted because of the audience's willingness and desire to believe in their content.
Free will is examined as Mark cannot bring himself to take advantage of his "power" to have his way with the love of his life, Anna. About to marry another, she asks Mark what "the man in the sky" wants her to do. As "the man in the sky's" mouthpiece, Mark could easily deceive Anna into marrying him, but he recognises the importance of free will and sincerity, and wants her to think for herself rather than follow an edict.
As the assurance of future happiness in the afterlife spreads, less and less effort is put into life on Earth, leading to further and ever more complex edicts concerning worthiness and punishment for unworthiness, again challenged but accepted through willingness to believe.
In the end, Mark appears to have had an uplifting effect on society and the future of the lie appears assured as his son says a falsehood to spare his mother's feelings (concerning the quality of her cooking).
Messrs Gervais and Robinson appear to suggest that imagination, exaggeration, omission, deviation and avoidance all involve forms of lying that may bring about a positive outcome, especially if this allows for the sparing of others' feelings or gives people hope (whether false or not). It is interesting, however, to note that we (the audience) are expected to see the "theft" of money from a bank and a casino as acceptable, perhaps because these institutions are perceived as being less than completely fair and honest in the first place!
It is fair to say that the film is a success "artistically", as it draws attention to social mores and invites reflection on religion, relationships and the nature of success. It also appears to suggest that "lying" (in the broadest terms) is testament to an increased awareness of the thoughts and feelings of others, allowing greater insight, understanding and even compassion.
However, can the film be said to be successful in terms of its internal structure?
As I suggested at the start, there is a certain alienation of the audience at the very beginning with a voiceover informing us of the fundamental first principle of truth-telling, leading to the establishment of this fantasy world and the creation of a certain "distance" between the film and its viewers.
The characters are generally unsympathetic and hard to identify with, and are often rude, unpleasant and shallow. Even Mark (Ricky Gervais) falls foul of this - we have some sympathy for him, but in the end he lies to gain his position, and it is ultimately difficult to see this as heroic or enviable.
All told, the characters are tools - playful but cold - who are used to make an intellectual point. The "theatrical wall" has been replaced by something more akin to a distorted mirror making it difficult to see the whole clearly, though it does bring various elements sharply in to focus. It also becomes somewhat repetitive, using numerous amusing but similar situations to drive home its point.
In spite of this, I consider the film a brave and heroic attempt to produce something interesting and novel.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page.
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